[ The three Christmas stories below stem from our last three Christmases: In Hereford, England in 2016, Hong Kong in 2017, and the Gers, France in 2018. This year we’re in Manila (see our reflection?), and look forward to seeing what develops! ]
A Christmas Pickle – Hereford, England 2016
The chill wind that had rattled Annie’s windowpanes last night was now taking its toll on her hair, whipping her curls back and forth. She briefly regretted leaving her gloves and scarf behind, but all she could do was pull her collar’s zip higher, hunch her shoulders and endure. She could feel the warmth ebb from her cheeks and earlobes, and her fingertips were going numb. Heaven.
The wind brought back floods of sensory memories that she savoured like truffles, remembering last winter. Last Christmas.
It had started out typically dreary, in mood and in weather. She had been walking alone in this same park, watching the same brown leaves tumble across the bowls court and football pitches, before finally lodging in the hedges of the surrounding homes. No children, no husband, no family, no friends to share the day with, only those out for a Christmas stroll before the lamb or goose was finished roasting. Annie had long stopped making a roast dinner for just herself, despite it being her favourite meal of the year, as the act of chopping parsnips for one was a recipe for loneliness. Instead, each Christmas she would wander the neighbourhood and feel like a festive voyeur frozen out of the seasonal warmth. Cataloguing the lights, the twinkling trees, glimpsed between curtains.
For no reason other than to fill time, Annie had decided to sit on the log that was marooned inside the small copse of trees in the park’s centre. Small but wild, not a place anyone would be on Christmas. As she ducked under the branches and entered the oak grove, she heard a soft whimpering. As she plunged deeper, she found a recently fallen branch and a profoundly distressed pug dog. Its flea collar was caught, mud churned up under its little paws, and squirm as it may it couldn’t get free. It was exhausted, ready to collapse.
Acting quickly, Annie took off her scarf and tied it to the dog’s collar, a perfunctory lead in case the dog panicked once released. Cooing to the poor creature, she gently unhooked it and pulled his freezing body into her lap as she herself sank into the leaves. He melted into her warmth and burrowed deeper. As she stroked him, she twisted his collar around – no tags, just a flea collar. He was hers for the time being, and Annie was glad.
Back at home, washed and dried, the pug recuperated quickly, and within a few hours seemed to have forgotten his ordeal entirely. He also adored her, cosying onto her lap at every opportunity, at least when he wasn’t getting his head stuck in every boot, jar and vase that she owned. The despondency that had filled Annie’s home, filling up the corners and lounging on top of the furniture, began to fade. The only shadow was imagining the day when her little pug was reunited with his people, and she would be alone again.
After a day to themselves, on Boxing Day Annie alerted every authority she could think of about her mischievous found dog, and refused to give him a name for fear of the pending goodbye. She hadn’t gone so far as to print Found Dog signs, giving herself the excuse that it was littering and the pug’s owners, if they really cared, would contact the RSPCA. As the first weeks of the New Year passed and her mobile remained resolutely silent, her hopes began to grow. She named him Branston, because he always got into pickles.
Then one bitter January day Annie was walking Branston in the same park, around the same copse, and her little pug went into seizures of joy at the site of a man resting on a bench. Branston scurried over to him, and leapt into his lap. He wore a plaid flat cap and wax coat, tightly buttoned given the biting weather, and had tufts coming out of his ears. He looked kind. Someone who enjoyed pottering in the garden, forgetting his glasses, and waxing the car. His face lifted first in surprise and then joy as he hugged Branston, and then looked up into Annie’s eyes with tears of gratitude. She smiled back even as her heart sank.
“I take it you know each other? I found him on Christmas day… I tried to find his owners, but…”
“Yes, this is my cheeky boy! Oh how I’ve missed him. I’ve missed you, my sweet little pugger, who’s a good dog? What pickle did you get yourself into this time? What have you done with your collar?”
Annie felt tears rising herself. This was the day she had dreaded. It had only been a month with the little dog, but it felt like a lifetime. They had just finished the dog food that morning, so there seemed nothing left to say, or do, apart from give Branston a final pat and choke out a goodbye.
Before she could move, the man put Branston down and stuck out his hand.
“I’m Chris, and yes this is my trouble-finding pug, Branston. Because…”
“…he…always gets into a pickle!?” finished Annie, flabbergasted. “That’s what I named him too!”
The man’s grin widened in happy astonishment, his face creasing into well-used wrinkles.
“Listen, could I tempt you with a cup of tea?” Chris offered. “I only live just there, it’s freezing and it’s the least I can do to thank you for finding Branston. You can then tell me what pickles he got himself into with you!”
Annie found herself grinning back and beginning to like this Chris, to like him very much.
Now, a year later, she and Branston were exploring the same park, circling the same copse, on another chilly Christmas. There were a few families out, several dog-walkers, one young couple who stopped to admire Branston, take his photo and have a friendly chat. But today was not like other Christmases. Today, she and Branston would be returning home to her once-neighbour, now future-husband, to thaw out in one of his long hugs. Back home to the smell of roasting lamb and potatoes cooked in goose fat, golden parsnips and the requisite Brussel sprouts, her first Christmas dinner in a long, long time.
Helicopter Parent – Hong Kong, 2017
No amount of money could have paid him to be here, roaring 500 feet above trees, a crowd, the blue ocean, yachts, a cemetery, oh God a cemetery. How many times did the pilot really need to circle before landing?
The helicopter’s door was open, meaning hot wind blew his hair into his eyes and his beard into his mouth and nose, not helping. He tried to breathe in, then out, slowly, surely, calmly. But he kept inhaling his hair instead. Try not to choke.
“Look out the door! Give a wave,” said the pilot over the headset. “There’s a good Christmas crowd today!”
Henry gulped, forcing himself to face the doorway and the wind. Clinging to the grab handles, he put a shaky hand out into the air and gave a few waves. His gloves were slippery, what if he lost his grip? He retreated back to the centre of the chopper. This was for his son. For his wife.
“How soon can we land? The sooner the better!!”
“We still have two flyovers left, keep waving! This is part of the magic!”
Henry swallowed his panic and annoyance. “I hate flying, and I have vertigo!”
“Why the hell did you sign up then?” said the pilot, puzzled. “They said you begged to do this.”
“Just focus on flying. I want to land alive please.” Henry didn’t tell the pilot about his family, and their propensity for big entrances. It was when his wife proposed by clambering on stage at the Royal Festival Hall, dressed only in a Cupid onesy, that he knew that he’d met his match and soulmate.
Henry distracted himself with thoughts of his homecoming and the decisions that had led him to this terrifying height. His boss had told him in October he was being transferred back to Hong Kong, for a January start. His first thought was delight at being back with his family. And then, then, the big question of how to arrive. His impish mind had begun assessing and discarding ideas, looking for the best surprise.
His back itched, sweat seeping out of his skin. His suit was a strait jacket, his heartbeat a terrible metronome, the pounding barely audible over the rotors hacking at the humid air.
“How you doing back there? Try to enjoy it!”
Henry didn’t reply, and was instead focused on his son’s face, held close in his mind. He would be with them soon. Their weekly Skype calls on broken internet had only made him more homesick, and now it was almost over. His stomach trembled, this time from excitement.
Looking down, out of the door to the fête 300 feet below, he saw tents and the crowd again, a dozen Christmas trees, the dunking booth, a tombola, and what looked oddly like a troop of belly dancers and parts of a Chinese dragon. He couldn’t see individual faces yet and but had the vicar’s promise that through hell or holy water he would make sure his wife and son were there. Now he just had to find them in the cheering mass.
The helicopter juddered and Henry felt light-headed. He was so hot, so scared, so excited. High on adrenaline and twelve hours of jetlag.
“Starting our final descent, keep waving – they can really see you now,” admonished the pilot. It took Henry’s full concentration and courage to stand in the doorway and wave, wave, wave. Searching for his family. He had held his son six long months ago, and his arms ached to hug him again.
Dropping fast now, 100 feet, 50 feet, 20 feet, nearly there. Henry kept waving, gripping and looking, waving, looking, gripping. There! Front row, staring right back at him. His wife, in true form, was dressed as an elf, complete with curling boots and circles of blush on her cheeks. She held their son’s shoulders as he leaned against her, poking her in the chin with his oversized set of stuffed antlers. A bright red nose covering half his face. Henry giggled.
As the chopper hovered just above the ground and the distance between them shrank to a few dozen feet, he saw his wife’s eyes widen in realisation – confirmation? – that it was him. She could always recognise him, no matter what. She dodged the antlers and crouching down next to their son pointed to Henry, crying and laughing. His son’s face burst into smile and his wife had to hold him back from running towards the landing helicopter. Henry kept waving to the crowd of families and photographers, but couldn’t take his eyes off the two of them as his heart soared.
And then a thump as the runners hit the football pitch and the crowd went wild. Christmas songs, the blades, and the cheering audience made for a heady combination; Henry and his wife shared a grin. It was time for his extensively planned, utterly over-the-top reunion.
Motorcycle Man – Gers, France, 2018
A perfect winter’s morning. The Pyrenees rose white and angular on the southern horizon, framed by his bedroom’s new red curtains. Jean-Claude woke early and chattered his way to the shower, where he used the last of her lavender soap to scrub himself more thoroughly than he had done for months. He even lathered his hair with the soap, enjoying hot shivers as the scalding water rinsed away his dandruff and loneliness.
Once clean, he pulled on the clothes he had spread out the night before, chosen with help by his sister Marie who had come over to ensure his apartment was up to feminine standards. He carefully re-laid the fire, so that it could be lit with just one match and zero thought, and emptied the drainer of his grandmother’s porcelain; everything was set. He’d forgotten to close the shutters last night, but at least didn’t need to waste time opening them now.
Last, he repositioned the long oblong box from all those years ago, between the holly centrepiece and bottle of his vineyard’s finest Armagnac. There was still some stubborn dust caught in the dress box’s velvet ribbon, but apart from that he and his sister had done a decent job revitalising. He only hoped the gown inside still shimmered and flowed.
He grabbed his jacket, motorcycle keys, and helmet, and stepped out into the balmy sunlight. This Christmas Eve was unmarred by clouds, just a few con-trails cross-hatching the crisp sky. A fresh and hopeful day. He stepped across the cobbled street to his local café with its open doors and tables spilling onto the lane.
A foreign couple sat at one of the outdoor tables, their faces turned to the sun. He wondered if they were British, like her, and if they spoke any French. Unlikely. With luck she would make a lot of friends here, British and French. He didn’t want her to feel homesick.
Francois had already set out his daily espresso and was wiping the bar.
“15 years, Jean-Claude!” Francois said.
“It’s felt like 50!” he replied, stirring three packs of sugar into his coffee and taking the first glorious sip. He turned from the bar and looked across the street to his Goldwing. “But it ends today. Or perhaps I should say, it begins!”
“What time does she get in?”
“In three hours. I want to arrive with plenty of time, just in case Papa Noel has given EasyJet some help and she lands early!”
They chuckled, both happy for him.
“Your sister mentioned the dress yesterday, my God, you still have it?”
“But of course – I wouldn’t let her take that back, she needed an incentive to finally quit and stop accepting promotions! If you are lucky, she will wear it tonight, assuming the weather stays this kind.”
“I’ve never known how you two have managed, so far away for so long. You must love her more than my Brigitte loves me! I am happy for you, Jean-Claude. And I look forward to seeing her pretty face in a few small hours, and hearing her terrible French!
–No the espresso is my gift. You need to go! Go get her as the Americans say.”
Jean-Claude reached across the counter and grasped Francois’ neck, giving a friendly shake. “I will, Francois, I will. Wish me luck!”
His legs were trembling as he left the café, realising he wouldn’t be in this town again without her. He tucked his jacket away, deciding he wanted a cold ride to ensure he didn’t sweat away the scent of lavender. As he sparked the engine into life, he smiled and waved at the foreign couple and their camera, documenting this day of his life. Perhaps they understood French after all? They grinned back at them and he suddenly felt free and delirious. His bike and heartrate accelerated together. Time to go get the girl, the long-distance love of his life.
And with that…
Merry Christmas from Travelling for Tea!
~ Elizabeth & Vientiene